It will take time to assess the legacy of Pete Seeger, who did an awful lot in his 94 years. He popularized folk music through his membership in The Weavers, wrote a lot of classic songs (recorded by The Byrds and others), and lead the way to an effective cleanup of the Hudson River by founding the — still going strong — Clearwater organization.
Seeger saw the Hudson every morning from his perch on a mountainside in Beacon, New York. He bought the place in 1949, and in 1961 he wrote, “Sailing up my dirty stream/Still I love it and I’ll keep the dream/That some day, though maybe not this year/My Hudson River will once again run clear.”
How many people get to realize their dreams? According to the nonprofit Riverkeeper, water quality is mostly “acceptable” today from Albany, New York to Elizabeth, New Jersey. The Hudson is running, well, not exactly clear but a whole lot clearer than it was in 1976, when the state environmental agency warned people not to eat the fish they caught. (General Electric started using PCBs at its capacitor plant on the Hudson River in 1947, two years before Seeger moved in.)
The Clearwater’s river sloop—and the annual folk/activist festival on the river’s banks — brought forward an outpouring of political, financial and moral support for restoring the Hudson. And I’m happy to report that Pete Seeger didn’t just talk about the environment — he lived it, every day.
Pete Seeger on the roof with his solar panels. (Photo: Ed Witkin/Reprinted with permission of Home Power magazine)
Yes, Seeger drove an electric car, and charged it from his own solar system. According to the folksy Home Power magazine, in 1991 Seeger was intrigued by Ed Witkin’s battery powered 1969 VW Microbus, which was used to provide electricity for one of the Clearwater stages. Pete wanted his own electric vehicle, and Witkin helped him find a 1988 Ford Ranger, with both four-wheel drive to handle his mountain and a 26.4-kilowatt-hour bank of lead-acid batteries connected to a nine-inch Advanced DC motor.
That truck, which got named “Truxie,” is old-tech today, and (especially because it had to go up those hills) had a range of only 10 to 20 miles. It suited Seeger’s needs, though, and he used it a lot to haul the firewood he burned in his woodstove. He also connected his electric chainsaw to the truck.
Beacon is only a few miles from the Indian Point nuclear power station, and 10 miles from the Central Hudson oil-fired plant. This irked Seeger, who didn’t want his electric car to get its electrons from non-sustainable sources. That led to the rooftop solar system — 20 AstroPower 120-watt photovoltaic modules, 2,400 watts in total. The electricity not used by the Seegers, or Truxie, went back to the grid and spun their meter backwards. Witkin estimated that the solar system — not big by today’s standards — offset about 22 percent of the Seegers’ electricity consumption.
“Pete Seeger wasn’t technically all that savvy, but he totally defined himself as an environmentalist, and he used that electric truck all the time,” Witkin, who lives in North Carolina, told me. “Sometimes he’d use it to make maple syrup, or to power the PA at events with music. It’s still up there at his house.” Witkin said Seeger was still using Truxie as late as last November.
Seeger lived his principles. When I was at E/The Environmental Magazine, he used to send us passionate letters to the editor with crushed flowers in them. Let’s hope Truxie finds a good home. And those solar panels go on putting renewable energy back into the grid.
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